Your Excellency,

Human Rights Watch is a leading independent international human rights organization. We work on 80 countries worldwide, including many in Africa. We are committed to upholding the rights of African victims of human rights abuses and to working with rights-respecting African governments and bodies to address abusive situations where they occur.

As the African Union (AU) meets for its annual summit in Addis Ababa, its heads of state will address several urgent crises that have serious implications for human rights.

Of these, the situation in Somalia will be high on your agenda. For two years Somalia has been in the grip of a brutal conflict, worse even than the chronic violence seen since 1991. Every party to this conflict has committed war crimes and serious human rights abuses with impunity. The cumulative impact of these abuses on civilians has been devastating. Thousands have been killed and more than one million displaced. Increasing attacks on aid workers are preventing any effective response to a growing humanitarian crisis-three million Somalis are in need of assistance and for the most part they are not getting it.

The policies of many key governments and institutions toward Somalia have been deeply destructive. US policy on Somalia has been particularly unhelpful, treating Somalia's complex realities as a theater in the "war on terror" while turning a blind eye to rampant abuses by the Ethiopian and transitional government forces. Europe has funneled aid money to Somali police without insisting on accountability for serious crimes. Eritrea has provided arms to abusive groups in Somalia as part of its proxy war against Ethiopia.

The AU has made an important contribution to peace and security in Somalia and knows the futility of quick fixes. But it could do more to ameliorate the situation, for example on impunity. For too long individuals responsible for serious crimes in Somalia have not been held to account, a situation that has contributed to ongoing cycles of violence against civilians. The AU can take the first step by asking the United Nations Security Council to establish a UN Commission of Inquiry into the worst abuses in Somalia. An inquiry could begin by interviewing the many thousands of Somalis displaced by the conflict in neighboring countries; thus, security issues and the permission of the parties to the conflict need not be an impediment to an initial phase of work. An Inquiry would also send a clear message of solidarity to Somali civilians that African leaders are acting in response to their suffering.

On December 29, 2008, the AU suspended Guinea and threatened further sanctions unless the soldiers who seized power in December restored "constitutional rule." Human Rights Watch has urged the AU to maintain pressure on Guinea's new rulers - the so-called National Council of Democracy and Development (CNDD) - to ensure internationally-run parliamentary and presidential elections in 2009.

Guinea's parliamentary elections had been postponed for the third time in October 2008, just before President Conté's death.

The AU should address the longstanding problem of impunity in Guinea, and press the CNDD to:

  • Finance and make operational by June 2009 the National Commission of Inquiry, which was created to investigate the killings and abuses by security forces during the January and February 2007 nationwide strikes.
  • Make operational the National Observatory for Human Rights (ONDH), created by former Prime Minister Soure in 2008. An effective ONDH will be essential for monitoring any elections in 2009 and beyond.

The situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is a continuing and very serious cause for concern. There has been a temporary lull in violence in the North Kivu region. But reports from the ground that Rwanda's armed forces have crossed the border raise critical civilian protection concerns. All sides to the conflict, including the CNDP rebels and the Congolese armed forces, have committed serious violations of the laws of war. Meanwhile, the disturbing killings recently carried out by the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) in Orientale province highlight again the inadequacy of international, local and regional efforts to protect civilians.

The African Union can press for international security assistance to DRC to be adequately financed, manned, and focused on civilian protection. Human Rights Watch was one of a number of organizations that called for the time-limited deployment of a European force late last year to bolster the UN's efforts in North Kivu. Regrettably, these calls were ignored, and civilians in the region remain extremely vulnerable. We also see real difficulties in securing the additional UN peacekeepers that the UN Security Council approved in December 2008.

Human Rights Watch therefore urges the AU to take the following actions:

  • Ensure that the governments of Rwanda and DRC-and other regional stakeholders-cease supporting abusive proxy groups in the Kivus. The evidence, from UN and other sources, shows that both have actively been supporting armed groups that attack civilians.
  • Press for urgent international action to strengthen UN forces in the Kivus region and urge countries with effective military capacity to contribute.
  • Press for a full and independent investigation into violations of human rights and the laws of war committed in the Kivus in 2008 and ensure that all those responsible are held to account. We note that in late 2008 the International Criminal Court (ICC) opened an investigation into atrocities committed in the Kivus. It has already issued an arrest warrant for a senior member of the CNDP, Bosco Ntaganda. The AU should demand his handover to the ICC.
  • Press for LRA leaders subject to ICC arrest warrants, and who surrender or are captured, to be handed over for trial.

It is also urgent that the AU help draw international attention to the complexities of the DRC's problems, and counter the flawed notion that the situation in eastern DRC can be solved merely by eliminating the ethnic Hutu FDLR militia. The region's problems go much further and wider than one armed group, and include economic dynamics such as illicit resource extraction. The fighting in eastern Congo has been a continuing tragedy of civilian deaths, rapes and the use of child soldiers.      

The situation in Zimbabwe resembles the last days of Mobutu's Zaire and is now desperate. Over 2,000 people have now died in a cholera epidemic, and tens of thousands are now infected. This disease is easy to manage if backed by competent government and policy. New Human Rights Watch research, published this week, shows that the epidemic has a simple cause: the ruling ZANU-PF leadership's diversion of resources away from basic public health, towards sustaining its illegitimate rule, personal enrichment and oppressing its MDC opponents. Instead of tackling the humanitarian crisis, the Mugabe regime has focused on fabricating evidence that human rights defenders and others seek its overthrow.

The cholera deaths come on top of thousands from hunger or hunger-related disease. More than five million Zimbabweans - half the population - will need international food aid this year. With victims of cholera, hunger and political repression now fleeing across Zimbabwe's border, the regional situation is dire. South Africa has called the situation along its border with Zimbabwe "a disaster" yet some Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) and AU members cling to the fiction that this is not a regional crisis.  

The AU has one final chance to intervene, before the country collapses, and ensure a change of course. Mediation by the SADC has failed, mainly because it has acted as a front for the interests of one party, ZANU-PF. That party's leader Robert Mugabe will attend the summit as Zimbabwe's pretend-president, even though it lost general elections in March 2008 and unleashed a massive campaign of violence against its rival MDC in the presidential election run-off in June. Members of the AU condemned that violence. AU and other observers called the run-off not-free and unfair. 

The events of June 2008 can now clearly be seen as a pre-emptive coup by ZANU-PF, taking power extra-legally in anticipation of defeat at the polls. The AU summit in Egypt in June 2008 appealed to ZANU-PF and MDC to refrain from actions that would negatively impact on the climate of dialogue. By continuing to abduct and torture its opponents, ZANU-PF has clearly and blatantly ignored that appeal. The AU Charter identifies respect for democracy, human rights and the rule of law as universal values and says that all states party must promote and adhere to them. By putting human rights at the core of the Zimbabwe crisis and acting swiftly against those who disregard them, AU leaders can create a credible basis for a positive resolution.

Human Rights Watch urges the AU summit and its member states to:

  • Publicly condemn ongoing abuses by ZANU-PF, insist that it promptly end politically motivated violence, enforced disappearances, torture, and demand the release of MDC and civil society activists who are being unlawfully detained.
  • Ensure that external mediation on Zimbabwe is led and staffed by a new team of independent, impartial mediators appointed by the AU, who should in turn set specific principles, benchmarks and timelines for resolving the crisis.
  • Suspend Zimbabwe from the AU if - within a specific timeframe - ZANU-PF continues its abusive practices, blocks representative government, and fails to implement serious reforms or meet human rights benchmarks. Until then, ZANU-PF leader Robert Mugabe should not be received as Zimbabwe's president in AU and other regional fora.

2009 will be a critical year for peace and justice in Sudan. The implementation of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) is now well behind schedule, including preparations for national elections slated for mid-2009.  Both sides have deployed forces to contested north-south border areas, and there is a grave risk of new violence. With only two years remaining before southerners are scheduled to vote on self-determination, there is only a brief - and shrinking - window of opportunity in which to fulfill the CPA's promise of democratic transformation in Sudan. The AU summit has an opportunity to highlight this risk and press all sides to redouble their efforts to move forward with the CPA.

In Darfur, all efforts to secure peace must be welcomed, if based on a unified approach between the various AU, UN, Libyan, Qatari, and American initiatives. But they cannot be at the expense of justice. The ICC must be allowed to pursue its work to apprehend those accused of serious crimes free from political interference. The government of Sudan must cooperate fully with the court. Neither Khartoum, the Darfur rebels nor the South Sudan government can be allowed to use the warrants as an excuse to commit further violence against civilians, to obstruct peacekeepers and humanitarian workers, to harass and abuse human rights activists who speak out for justice, or to delay implementation of all elements of the CPA.  The AU should press all parties to the Sudan conflict to honor their CPA commitments.

Human Rights Watch strongly supports the contribution of AU member states to the UN peacekeeping mission in Darfur (UNAMID) - and particularly recent efforts to step up deployment.  But, regrettably, UNAMID is only at 60 percent strength. The AU knows the deployment cannot move forward without the full cooperation of the government of Sudan. Cooperation of any significance has only begun in the last six months and can easily be reversed.  But deployment of UNAMID - while essential - will not be enough. The critical test is whether civilians are being protected. Local Sudanese government officials continue to obstruct UNAMID, including by firing on patrols, imposing unnecessary bureaucratic restrictions, and other measures.

There is also the broader question of justice for the victims of human rights abuses. Africa's history - from the evils of colonialism to the horrors of genocide - is riddled with injustice. Atrocities are still being committed across the continent, including this month some horrific crimes by the Lord's Resistance Army. It is vital that the AU summit and the Union's individual members send a strong message that grave abuses will be investigated and their perpetrators fairly tried. If not, crimes in Darfur and the Kivus will further a culture of impunity and fuel cycles of violence. Accountability strengthens the rule of law, human rights and long-term stability. It is at the heart of the AU's mandate, as illustrated by article 4 of the Constitutive Act.

Some argue that universal jurisdiction is a neo-colonialist plot to try Africans.  This is not the case. It offers exceptional grounds for prosecution where national courts cannot or will not act.  It is a way for victims to access justice when they have nowhere else to turn. Some African countries have benefited greatly, notably Rwanda, between the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) and domestic prosecutions of genocidaires in European countries after 1994.

Some AU member states are selective in their support for universal jurisdiction, supporting it when it suits them politically and opposing it on spurious grounds when it does not. Some claim that French arrest warrants for those allegedly responsible for shooting down the plane carrying the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi in 1994 are part of a universal jurisdiction case. They are wrong. The plane's crew were French citizens: the case is based on French law. The recent Spanish arrest warrants for Rwandans alleged to have committed crimes is based on a blend of Spanish law and universal jurisdiction (some of the victims were Spanish priests).

Prosecution for atrocities committed in ongoing conflicts is increasingly a norm of the international system. The creation of the International Criminal Court (ICC) has helped. Thirty African states have ratified the ICC Statute, affirming their solidarity with victims of abuse. No international mechanisms are perfect, of course. But international courts are often the only option open to victims when domestic judicial systems have neither the capacity nor the willingness to hold perpetrators to account. Human Rights Watch urges the AU to restate its commitment to accountability and universal justice, recognize the ICC's positive contribution to the struggle against impunity, and urge all states to cooperate fully with the court.

Human Rights Watch is particularly concerned about the case of the former president of Chad, Hissène Habré, who stands accused of mass atrocities. In July 2006, the AU mandated Senegal to prosecute Habré "on behalf of Africa," and asked the AU Chairperson "to provide Senegal with the necessary assistance for the effective conduct of the trial."  Two and a half years later, Senegal has failed even to begin proceedings and the AU has offered no concrete assistance to Senegal.  The AU has an opportunity to demonstrate Africa's capacity to deal with crimes in violation of international law committed in Africa. The AU should press Senegal to move forward and should join the many non-African countries that have offered Senegal assistance.

Human Rights Watch enjoys a positive, productive dialogue with the AU Commission and many AU member states. We look forward to strengthening that dialogue in the coming months. Our best wishes for a successful and productive summit.

Sincerely,

Jon Elliott
Africa Advocacy Director
Human Rights Watch

CC: PSC members and AUC Directors